Fake medium Madam Blanche (Barbara Harris) and her taxi driver boyfriend George (Bruce Dern) make a living by scaming people with her phoney powers. They are hired by an aging widow, Julia Rainbird, to find her nephew who was given away for adoption many years earlier following a family scandal. Meanwhile, an extremely clever couple, diamond merchant Arthur Adamson (William Devine) and his attractive girlfriend Fran (Karen Black), are behind a series of kidnappings of various VIPs in the San Francisco area. The two couples paths soon cross and chaos results in Hitchcock's last film.
Karen Black ... Fran
Bruce Dern ... George
Barbara Harris ... Blanche
William Devane ... Adamson
Ed Lauter ... Maloney
Cathleen Nesbitt ... Julia Rainbird
Katherine Helmond ... Mrs. Maloney
Warren J. Kemmerling ... Grandison
Edith Atwater ... Mrs. Clay
William Prince ... Bishop
Nicholas Colasanto ... Constantine
Marge Redmond ... Mrs. Hannagan
John Lehne ... Bush
Charles Tyner ... Wheeler
Alexander Lockwood ... Parson
Family Plot differs from all the other Hitchcock films. It lacks suspense, for the most part, and it is not as funny as many of his films. Instead, it is just an amusing little yarn. I like the way the film starts with two separate plot lines which gradually merge. Even if it is not the most original thing in the world (especially since two of Family Plot's stars were main players in Robert Altman's Nashville), it still makes the film interesting. If anyone else had made this film, it probably would be more fondly received by the public, although I doubt anyone would still be watching it today.
The two characters with whom we begin the film, whom we would consider the heroes, are the best, and are played lovingly by Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern. She's a hack psychic milking old ladies out of pensions, and he's a cabbie who cannot find enough time both to drive his cab and participate in Harris' schemes. Although the characters aren't as well developed as those in numerous other Hitchcock ventures, they're entertaining.
The other couple, Karen Black and William Devane, fare less well. They're more crafty in their crimes, perpetrating large-scale kidnappings for enormous ransoms. Karen Black's character is very underdeveloped, hardly showing any depth. What character she does have is not entirely believable, since Karen Black seems too nice to play a hardcore criminal. William Devane is decent as the sinister mastermind, but the history provided to his character is far more brutal than is believable (he locked his adopted parents in their bedroom and set fire to their house).
I liked the idea of the small time crooks clashing with the professionals, and I liked the outcome of the film. All in all, it is decent and worth watching. It does not feel anything like a Hitchcock film, so I wouldn't expect anything like Vertigo or Rear Window when approaching this, his swan song.
`Family Plot' is generally regarded as a disappointing entry into the Hitchcock canon, further burdened by the fact that it became his final film – whereas other lighthearted Hitch pictures like `The Trouble With Harry' (another underrated gem) could be accepted for what they were, `Family Plot' buckles under the critical weight and expectation of what should constitute the final film of a cinema master.
Once you throw all that in the bin, however, `Family Plot' is a marvellous, light-hearted comedy/thriller.
Hitchcock had begun, in his later films, to cast lesser-known actors because (a) having been established in the era of the studio system, he saw no need to pay exorbitant sums for actors whom he viewed as just as important in the film-making process as technical crew who were paid less and (b) he wanted to avoid the audience making assumptions about character based purely on who had been cast in a role.
The performances of the four leads in `Family Plot' are consistently excellent. Barbara Harris is hilarious, showing touches of Madeleine Kahn in her role as fake psychic Blanche, Bruce Dern is endearing as her flakey sidekick Frank McBride, Karen Black brilliantly plays it straight-down-the-line (despite the silly disguises she wears) as a partner in crime to kidnapper-jeweler Arthur Adamson, played with deliciously subtle menace by William Devane.
The music, provided by John Williams in a first-time collaboration with Hitchcock, works a treat, avoiding the bombastic overtones of some of his worst Hollywood-esque scores and harking back to the classic days of Bernard Herrmann.
Being drawn into the web of the intricate plot that sees these four characters being drawn together, and seeing the sparks fly in the witty dialogue (penned by `North by Northwest' screenwriter Ernest Lehman) is enough – but the set pieces (a rollercoaster ride in an out-of-control car in the mountains, the kidnapping of a priest in the middle of a service, to name a few) elevate this film to a delightful popcorn experience that you will want to return to again – there are subtleties and layers in the performances that will be guaranteed to keep you coming back for more.
This film gets a bad rap because it was not a suspenseful blockbuster in the vein of "Psycho" and "The Birds". The fact is, is that after Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedrin did battle with seagulls in 1963, Hitchcock never again approached the heights of a major director and he dramatically slowed down his film output.
Still, this movie, along with 1964's "Marnie" and '72's "Frenzy" represent a decent effort by Hitchcock to stay current and hip with modern audiences. That he was still directing films at all in the 1960s and 1970s is quite remarkable for a man whose film work began in the silent era.
"Family Plot" is a fun, neat little comedy-thriller much akin to the NBC Mystery Movies of that era... i.e., "Columbo", "McMillen and Wife". Blanche is a phony psychic who, along with her reluctant boyfriend Frank, played hilariously by the underrated Bruce Dern, run afoul of big time crooks Karen Black and William Devane.
The plot does get a bit convoluted, but Hitchcock was smart enough to lay off the heavy-handed dictatorial directorship that categorized his earlier work and let the actors and their characters move the plot along. Unlike Cary Grant's Thornhill in "North By Northwest", we care about Blanche and Frank because they really are like us, the viewer. As much as we all adored the women in Hitch's films... Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak, and wanted to be like the men,Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewert, Ray Milland, Rod Taylor, Farley Granger, etc., none of these characters were remotely like US, and in his dotage, Hitchcock was still keen enough to realize that Cary Grant in 1956 was an admirable figure walking down the street... in 1976 he was apt to be pointed at and laughed about. Hitch knew INSTINCTIVELY that the gray suit and slicked back hair era was gone forever. In this film, it doesn't even look like Dern showers.
That's part of the charm and why it was so refreshing, at this late date, to go into the movie theater and enjoy an Alfred Hitchcock film without having to sigh that it was all about nostalgia. This film, in his humorous approach has much in common with "The Trouble With Harry" than "Psycho" or "Shadow of a Doubt".
Hitch didn't go out with a classic, that's for sure, but he went out with a modern film that showed he could still produce an entertaining flick. That was all he was ever about anyway. No higher praise is needed.
* Director Cameo: [Alfred Hitchcock] in silhouette 45 minutes into the film behind the door at the registrar of births and deaths.
* A street sign in the film reads "Bates Ave". The Bates Motel was the setting for Hitchcock's earlier film Psycho (1960).
* Roy Thinnes was originally hired to play Arthur Adamson, but Hitchcock's first choice William Devane became available so Hitchcock fired Thinnes without a reason and hired Devane. Some key scenes had been shot prior to this. Everything that had been shot was re-shot except for long shots which to this day remain as Roy Thinnes and not William Devane.
* Director Trademark: [Alfred Hitchcock] [bathroom] features a modern chemical toilet.
* Alfred Hitchcock was famous for making his actors follow the script to the word, but in this movie he let the characters improvise and use their own dialogue.
* Alfred Hitchcock's final film.
* Alfred Hitchcock initially wanted Al Pacino for the role of Lumley. According to an interview on the DVD with Bruce Dern, who ultimately got the part, Pacino's asking price was too high because of the recent successes he had enjoyed (Serpico (1973), The Godfather (1972), etc.)
* The final shot in the movie, a wink by the Barbara Harris character was a jokey reference that was not planned but Alfred Hitchcock decided to leave in.
* Lillian Gish wanted to test for the role of Julia Rainbird but the role had been promised to Cathleen Nesbitt.
* Jack Nicholson couldn't accept the role of George Lumley, as he was doing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975).
* Liza Minnelli was originally cast to play the role that later went to Barbara Harris.
* Karen Black initially wanted the role of Blanche.